Book Review: The Twelve Caesars
The Twelve Caesars: The Dramatic Lives of the Emperors of Rome
By Matthew Dennison
St. Martin’s Press, 2013
It’s always convenient when an author lays his cards on the table right at the beginning of proceedings, without asking readers to grope around for hidden agendas or wonder about rhetorical trap doors. Matthew Dennison did that quite promptly in his entertaining 2011 biography of Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, and he’s even more obliging at the beginning of his new book, The Twelve Caesars:
Isolated by eminence, ‘the bald whoremonger’ Gaius Julius Caesar conceals from us the innermost workings of heart and mind. ‘Twas ever thus. Repeatedly he came, saw, conquered; he wrote too, and with impassioned gestures and in a high-pitched voice he importuned his contemporaries if not for love, then for acquiescence, assistance, acknowledgment, awe, acclaim, an approximation of ardour and above all, admiration and action.
In those two sentences, readers get a quick guided tour of pretty much every shelf of Dennison’s spice rack. That attention-grabbing “whoremonger” right in the first line bespeaks this author’s desire to bring his studies of the classical world to the modern, scandal-obsessed culture of the 21st century, but that neat “isolated by eminence” also reveals an author who can, when the mood strikes him, turn out a good, insightful phrase or two. That lazy “’Twas ever thus,” meaning precisely nothing in this context (or any other context in which it’s ever been used), shows a lazy writer who neither proofreads his own work nor thinks it needs proofreading. And worst of all by far is that egregious, stage-jumping word-play, which totally derails any thought the reader might have had of paying attention to anything but the word-play. Three words in a row starting the letter ‘a’! Five in a row! Eight! A writer who’ll stoop to such mummery runs the risk of convincing his readers that mummery is his first goal. Such a writer risks making an assonance of himself.
Alas, it isn’t an isolated goof on Dennison’s part; it runs through his latest book like the braying of a donkey. In old age, Tiberius is “embattled and embittered”; Caligula begins his reign by “pursuing plaudits, praise, and pity”; Claudius devotes his time to “taverns and tarts.” You go in for the ancient Roman history, but you stay for the Broadway showtune lyrics.
‘Twasn’t always thus. Dennison intends his book to be an update of Suetonius’ great Lives of the Caesars, with its vivid, impressionistic short accounts of the lives of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Otho, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Suetonius makes undyingly great reading, but historians have long known that he requires careful watching and – when possible – careful corroboration with other ancient sources. These corrected, expanded versions of the Lives of the Caesars have been reliable fixtures in the pop-classics playbook; Michael Grant did one back in 1975 (in his exceedingly modest bibliography, Dennison cites a 1996 reprint, but he does get the century right), and apart from Grant’s greater range, depth, wit, and eloquence, Dennison’s book is much the same – almost distressingly the same, since this The Twelve Caesars almost completely ignores all the research that’s been done on the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties in the last quarter-century. Classicists will of course give Dennison’s book a wide berth, but even lowly non-classicists will be well-warned that this The Twelve Caesars requires careful watching and – when possible – careful corroboration.
As he proved in his last book, Dennison is quite capable of interesting thinking on his chosen subjects, and he’s a friendly guide, referring at one point, for instance, to the emperor Vespasian’s “earthy, amiable, spade-calling-spade, farting-and-belching barrack-room Italianness,” and showing himself willing to strike a refreshingly even-handed note with such traditionally reviled figures as short-reigned emperor Vitellius:
His history, particularly at Nero’s court, was one of grasping sycophancy, but as emperor he was capable of clemency and modesty towards his opponents and he had earlier shown himself a gifted provincial administrator able to assess and respond to the needs of situations outside his ken.
But then the reader stumbles upon his account of Vespasian’s son Titus: “His brief reign would be marked by emissions, eruptions and explosions.” And the show goes on.